LIGHTING AND GRIPS
Job Title: Key Grip
“The cinematographer has a key grip and a gaffer,” says key grip Bob Munoz. “Between the two of them, they realize his lighting vision. Grips also take care of moving walls and set construction. If you hit a location and the cameraman wants a light up on the 23rd floor of a building, we figure out how to do that. We also handle all the camera movements.”
“The key grip is the head of the grip department,” explains key grip Russell Senato. “The grips take their instruction from the director of photography. We mount, rig, and operate all the machines the cameras go on: dollies, jibs, etc. Whether a camera is mounted on a car or a helicopter, the grips usually do the rigging. We also work very closely with the electrician—the gaffer. We rig any lighting that needs to be rigged. We bend, shape, and texture the light with flags. We mainly work with the camera department and the electricians—with the lighting and cameras, but we also support the other departments. Basically, we do anything that needs to be done—if a bridge needs to be built across a stream, and it's doable, we'll put a bridge across the stream.”
The strength to lift and carry equipment, carpentry skills, electrical experience, and mechanical aptitude are assets to working as a grip. “You have to know how to use your hands,” says Munoz. “Listen and learn. Pay attention. That's the biggest thing I can say: pay attention … There are so many people in the business that never get any further, and I think it's because they're just here for a paycheck. They're not really interested in learning the craft.”
“Get a book called The Grip Book by Michael G. Uva,” suggests Russell Senato. “He is a famous full time grip in California. The book shows you all the equipment and gives you the basics.”
Advice for Someone Seeking This Job
To be successful as a key grip, Munoz says you must live near Los Angeles or New York, where most of the work originates. “It's hard to pick up a job over the phone. If you really want to do this, go to Hollywood and meet as many people as you can. Go to all the different studios and put your name in. Do whatever it takes.”
A job as a production assistant or day player is a good way to get on the set, see what grips do, and make contacts that might lead to a future job. “Call the film commission in your state and tell them your interests,” suggests Senato. “They might be able to help you. They know what films are coming into the state and who is looking for interns.”
With under two years of experience, Senato says, “I walked up to a key grip doing a scout on a movie. He didn't know me. I saw them moving stuff and started helping them. After a time I told them, ‘I'm a grip trying to get on a movie.’ He told me to report next Thursday and I was hired.”
What do you like least about your job?
“What I like least is driving to work every day—but, if I'm out of town I don't have to drive.”—Bob Munoz
What do you love most about your job?
“What I like most is that I don't have to do the same thing every day.”—Bob Munoz
Professional Profile: Bob Munoz, Key Grip
“I've got about 29 years in the business,” say Bob Munoz, “and gripping is the only thing I've ever done, besides being a stagehand. I just can't imagine doing anything else.”
A native of Tucson, Arizona, Munoz's father was a projectionist and a member of IATSE. Through his father's connections, Munoz began working as a stagehand while still in high school. After one semester of college, he realized it wasn't his forte and moved to Los Angeles in 1973 to look for film work.
Munoz found work at Universal Studios, on a crew constructing sets for television series, and remained there for four years. “They had so many TV shows. You went from one stage to another, setting up stuff for the production company to use the next day.”
* When you land a job, listen and learn from those working around you.
Introduced by a friend to key grip Gene Kearney, Munoz got a job on The Baltimore Bullet that launched his career in features. He worked as a key grip under Kearney on more than a dozen films during the next decade, including E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Ghostbusters, The Color Purple, Legal Eagles, and Alien Nation.
Munoz had planned to best boy under Kearney on Die Hard II. While waiting for production to begin, Kearney flew to Chicago to finish Flatliners, and was unavailable when Die Hard II got the green light. Munoz interviewed with cinematographer Oliver Wood and got the key grip job instead. He continued to key grip on features such as Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, Terminal Velocity, and his personal favorite, Chaplin. “It was my favorite because [we] were surrounded with incredibly talented people. The director, Sir Richard Attenborough, is such a class act. Sven Nykvist, the cameraman, is a legend. It was such a relaxed atmosphere.”
In the mid-1990s, Munoz reunited with Kearney, who was serving as dolly grip, on Mr. Holland's Opus. “That was one of the fun-est times I had on a picture. It was summertime and my whole family came up to Portland, Oregon, where we were shooting on location … It was a very pleasant experience because Stephen Herek is a great, great director.”
Munoz has continued to key grip on features, adding 2 Days in the Valley, Lethal Weapon 4, House on Haunted Hill, and Collateral Damage to his credits. “I never had any aspirations to be a key. I loved being a best boy, but I have become fond of being the key grip. After all those years of being the last one to leave—the one to shut the doors on the truck—I kind of like that as the key, when they call it a wrap, I just leave.”
What do you like least about your job?
For Senato it's a toss-up: “Either the fact that we sometimes have to work in the most adverse weather conditions [while the crew may have moved indoors to shoot, the grips might have to remain outside in rain or snow to rig the next shot] or playing politics with producers and different departments, instead of just being able to do the job. That's probably my least favorite part: the whole politics thing.”—Russell Senato
What do you love most about your job?
“I just love being on the set. I love filmmaking, being part of a project. I really like all the people you meet—that is one of the best things about it. I also enjoy rigging the cameras; it's like being a kid, getting to rig and tinker with equipment. That's probably the most fun thing for me: rigging the cameras.”—Russell Senato
Professional Profile: Russell Senato, Key Grip
“I didn't start doing film work until I was 28 or 29,” recalls Russell Senato. An upstate New York native, he moved south to Virginia after high school. There he taught himself to run sound for concerts. “I was a high rigger for years on concert tours, setting up all the outdoor staging.” Over time, he purchased equipment piece by piece, building his own sound reinforcement company.
He was introduced to film production when a friend asked him to help out with some commercials he was working on. “I got hooked real quick.” Senato went on to work on Navy Seals as a day player, assisting the grips and electricians. Working on a big feature with a gigantic crew, he says, “I was not star struck, but work struck. I loved it immediately.
“After Navy Seals I started trying to get on whatever I could. I was persistent. I went and talked to people, even though I was green. They liked my attitude and I promised them I'd be a hard worker.” Low budget films followed, some paying only a $50 flat fee for a 16-hour day, but he took the work to gain experience. “I did what I had to do and worked my way up the ladder.”
While working in Virginia, Senato connected with some key grips based out of California. An offer of work lured him west when the grips returned home. He gripped and dollied on several movies, always returning to Virginia between projects.
* Senato says success comes from “downright hard work and perseverance. I talked my way into several jobs because I didn't have the experience. Once I was there, I just busted butt, paid attention, listened, asked questions at the appropriate times, and didn't joke around too much.”—Russell Senato
* “Do what your boss tells you to do. You may have your own ideas, but it doesn't matter. When you get to the point where you're making decisions, then you can use your ideas.”—Russell Senato
* “Try to learn everyone else's craft while trying to learn your own. Pay attention to what is going on, on set. Not just in the grip department, but watch what the set dressers are doing and watch what the electricians are doing and the camera department. You'll see how it all fits together. Get set-savvy. Learn how you should conduct yourself on the set: your attitude, where you should be at the right time (not standing in a doorway or sitting on a set of steps where people are trying to carry equipment up and down). Pay attention and do your job and make sure you're not hindering anyone else from doing their job.”—Russell Senato
Initially leaning toward becoming an electrician, Senato switch-hit between the lighting and grip departments for a time before discovering that his interests lay more in gripping. Like he had done earlier while working sound, he began purchasing equipment and formed his own company: Cloud 9 Cranes and Camera Supports. “I own a 40-foot truck—it's a rolling workshop of all kinds of rigging equipment.”
Today, Senato's résumé includes work on Conspiracy Theory, Dave, G.I. Jane, The Jackal, Minority Report, and Toy Soldiers. He has also worked on The West Wing since the first season, on location shoots in the Washington, D.C., area.
“I love my job. It can be frustrating sometimes, but I certainly love doing what I'm doing.”
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Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCareers in Film and TelevisionLIGHTING AND GRIPS - Job Title: Gaffer, Chief Lighting Technician, Job Title: Rigging Gaffer, Job Title: Key Grip